New Silver Medal Honors African American WWI Hero Sgt. Henry Johnson (Military Trader)
The following article originally appeared in Military Trader on July 31, 2018.
ALBANY, NY — One of the nation’s oldest coin shops has minted 500 silver coin-shaped medals honoring African American World War I hero Sgt. Henry Johnson.
Ferris Coin Co. premiered the silver coin-shaped Sgt. Henry Johnson medals at a special function in The Palace Theatre lobby on Wed. June 27. The event included a meet-and-greet with artist Chris Costello and the opportunity to purchase a medal.
“It is our hope that through this silver medal more Americans learn the story of Sgt. Henry Johnson and his sacrifices to this nation,” said Geoffrey Demis, co-owner of Ferris Coin. “With humility, we contribute to the efforts of generations who have worked tirelessly to keep Sgt. Johnson’s legacy alive and to see his valor given the recognition due.”
WHO WAS HENRY JOHNSON?
On June 5, 1917, Albany resident Henry Johnson enlisted in the first African American unit in the U.S. Army to engage in combat in World War I. On May 15, 1918 in the early morning hours, then-Private Johnson heroically fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, saving the life of a fellow soldier. He was wounded 21 times. For his bravery, Johnson received France’s highest award for valor, the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, becoming the first American to receive this distinction. He received no military medals from his home country during his lifetime.
Sgt. Johnson returned to Albany in 1919 and struggled to readjust to civilian life and hold down steady work. He died, destitute, in 1929, in his mid-30s. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Sgt. Henry Johnson was finally recognized by the United States government for his service to his country when he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. In 2015 he was awarded the National Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military honor — by President Barack Obama.
“The story of Sgt. Henry Johnson is both inspiring and devastating,” said Jim Naughter, co-owner of Ferris Coin Co. “He was a highly decorated hero abroad, but he died destitute in his own country without receiving the full honors and support he was due in his lifetime. Some of his misfortune was backlash to his speaking out about the poor treatment of his fellow African Americans in the military and at home, which makes him even more heroic in my opinion.”
NATIONAL DESIGN CONTEST
In March 2018, Ferris Coin Co. announced a nation-wide competition to design the obverse and reverse sides of the medal with a $1,000 prize per side. An expert jury composed of esteemed professional artists and a representative of the 369th Veteran’s Association (the regiment Johnson served with) evaluated the contest entries. Artists of all levels from across the country submitted designs, including several artists whose work has been featured on U.S. Mint coins and one world famous medallic sculptor.
Though the jury was free to select any combination of designs, they chose both of Chris Costello’s designs for the front and backside of the medal. Costello’s artwork has appeared on 23 U.S. coins and medals, including one Congressional Gold Medal.
“My desire was to create a portrait of Henry Johnson that would be a little haunting with a living spirit captured in his eyes,” Costello said. “His solemn gaze at the viewer is a constant reminder to never forget the heroism, courage, and sacrifice of America’s military servicemen.”
A native of Kingston, N.Y., Costello now lives in Arlington, Mass.
“We’re thrilled to be working with an artist of Chris Costello’s talent,” said Mike Dozois, Ferris Coin Co. managing partner. “There were so many excellent designs to choose from, but our panel of judges felt that his artwork best captured the spirit of how our city is trying to inspire people with the story of Sgt. Henry Johnson.”
The obverse presents Sgt. Henry Johnson in the foreground in uniform, wearing the French Adrian helmet, which was the helmet most commonly worn by solders of the 369th U.S. Regiment a.k.a. the “Harlem Hellfighters,” rather than the English or American “doughboy” helmet. In the background is a forest. The text reads: “Argonne Forest 15 May 1918” and “Sgt. Henry Johnson” and “Enlisted 05 June 1917.”
The reverse features Albany City Hall and a representation of adjacent State Street with a rising morning sun. The text reads: “Sacrifice Today for Our Community’s Tomorrow” and “Honor * Duty * Service.”
Each medal is packaged with a serial number, certificate of authenticity and a brief history of Sgt. Henry Johnson and an historic photograph of the 369th U.S. Regiment. (Costello also designed the packaging.) The medals cost $29.95, with $2 of every sale to benefit the 369th Veterans Association Albany District.
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
There is a lot of confusion and misinformation regarding the story of Sgt. Henry Johnson.
In order to ensure the historical accuracy of the silver medal and its packaging, Ferris Coin Co. sought assistance from genealogist Megan Smolenyak, who was hired by the U.S. Army to research Henry Johnson prior to posthumously awarding him the Medal of Honor, and Aaron Noble, Senior Historian and Curator, Political and Military History for the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y.
With their help, Ferris has verified the following quick facts about Sgt. Henry Johnson, contrary to some of what has been previously reported:
- Full Name: William Henry Johnson
- Born circa 1892
- Winston-Salem, North Carolina
- Enlisted June 5, 1917
- Albany, New York
- 15th New York Infantry Regiment
- 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment
- Tour of Duty
- World War I, France, 1918-1919
- Died July 1, 1929
- Washington, D.C.
- Croix de Guerre avec Palme, 1918
- Purple Heart, 1996 *
- Distinguished Service Cross, 2002 *
- Medal of Honor, 2015 *
HENRY JOHNSON DAY & HENRY JOHNSON DISTINGUISHED COMMUNITY SERVICE AWARD
On June 5, 2018, the City of Albany celebrated its second annual Henry Johnson Day, marked by a ceremony that included bestowing of the Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service. The date was selected because it is the date upon which Johnson enlisted.
The new Henry Johnson coin-shaped medal was granted as part of the award. Through the Distinguished Community Service Award contest, members of the community nominate their peers who have made outstanding contributions to the community in the areas of arts and history, social justice, education, or community organizing. The purpose of the award is to recognize an individual who has gone above and beyond the call of duty but has not received formal recognition or public thanks for their actions.
Ferris Coin Co. donated* 10 silver medals to be presented to the winners of the Henry Johnson Award for the next decade. This year’s winner, the first to receive a medal, was Jahkeen Hoke.
(* Note: Serial Nos. 2 – 10 and 369 were donated and reserved for the winners only. As the second winner, Jahkeen Hoke received #2. During the premiere event the first-year Henry Johnson Award winner, James Dandles, received #369. Dandles is the former president of the Albany Veterans of the 369th. He also served as a judge for the design contest.)
ABOUT FERRIS COIN CO.
Trusted since 1930, Ferris Coin buys and sells gold and silver bullion, rare coins, flatware and paper currency, as well as gold and platinum jewelry for resale, repair or recycle. Four in-house experts offer appraisals for personal and estate collections, including diamonds, and can assist with getting each piece proper insured.
In 1930, husband and wife Charlie & Arlene Ferris opened Ferris Stamp in downtown Albany, N.Y. at 402 Broadway. Later they incorporated coins into their business model as Ferris Stamp and Coin. In the 1960s, after her husband died of a heart attack, Mrs. Ferris sold the business to Wendell C. Williams who relocated the shop to Lark Street before relocating again to 114 Central Ave. in 1976.
The business re-opened in its third location at 199 Wolf Road this August. Ferris Coin is now co-owned by Geoffrey Demis, a long-time employee, Mike Dozois and gemologist James Naughter. The newest Ferris Coin staff member is Brian Bucher, who founded Brittany Jewelers in 1987 and served as president from 1987 until selling the company this June.
For information about Chris Costello, visit: https://www.usmint.gov/learn/artists/aip-chris-costello and https://chriscostello.design/
For information about the Albany Veterans of the 369th, visit: http://www.albany369th.org
For information about Sgt. Henry Johnson receiving the Medal of Honor, visit: https://www.army.mil/medalofhonor/johnson/